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How to Plan a Conference in 15 Easy Steps

Written by: Meg Breithaupt

Looking to assemble thought leaders to present on a topic (or topics) close to your heart? Sounds like you’re planning a conference! Conference planning is unlike any other event planning because it requires meticulous organizational skills, in-depth advanced research, boundless creativity, and a strong ability to multitask. There are a number of components involved with conference planning, like: recruiting speakers, securing a location, creating a program, managing audiovisual (AV) needs, and coordinating the guest experience. With our 15 tips for successful conference planning plus your organizational skills, you’re on your way to coordinating an organized and informative conference for your attendees.

Getting started (8-12 months before)

1. Create a timeline

About 8-12 months before your conference is the time to create a timeline. Your timeline should include all of the items you need to complete before, during, and after your conference, and when to complete them. The items on your timeline should range from large to-dos, like booking a venue, securing funding, and recruiting speakers, to smaller items, like assembling the program, printing name tags and signage, and drafting correspondence.

2. Set up a budget

Next on the list: set up a budget. Your budget should include an estimation of all conference expenses, like venue rental, catering, travel (if applicable), staffing, and print costs. When creating your budget, also consider the ideal ticket cost which will not only cover your expenses but also allow the greatest number of people access to your event. If you find that your ticket cost does not cover expenses, seek out sponsorship or grants to offset the cost of hosting the conference.

3. Book a venue

The next tip is to book a venue for your conference. Hotels, exhibit halls, or dedicated conference centers are great choices because these venues often have large and flexible meeting spaces. Hotels are ideal if you need to accommodate traveling speakers or presenters. Also, hotels, exhibit halls, or conference centers are typically accessible via public transportation or offer on-site parking for car or bus transportation.

4. Establish a website

The fourth tip of planning a conference is to establish a website. It’s helpful to have your website available 8-10 months before your conference because the website will be used not only to attract potential presenters, sponsors, and attendees, but also to brand and promote your event. Your website is the first opportunity to establish a “look” for your conference through its name, logo, hashtag, and colors. You can also drive traffic to your website through any communications about your event, whether online or in print.

Ramping up (4-8 months before)

5. Identify funding sources

Next up is to identify funding sources. Depending upon the nature of your conference, these funding sources could vary. If you are hosting a scientific conference, consider seeking support from companies who are interested in the research which will be featured at your conference. If you are hosting an industry conference, consider seeking support from businesses and offering speaking opportunities in exchange for support. Having sponsors will offset expenses whether through cash or in-kind donations. Utilize your website to attract corporate and individual support. You can also encourage your contacts to network and disseminate sponsorship information.

6. Secure speakers or submissions

About 6-8 months before your conference, you will want to secure dynamic speakers for your conference because conferences not only have great topics, they also have great speakers! When seeking out speakers for your conference, consider approaching leaders of professional development organizations related to your conference topic or seek out submissions from thought leaders in your area. Some speakers require compensation for their time; consider including a line item in your budget for travel or time. Also, some speakers may ask for a speaker’s agreement, especially if they’re presenting unpublished research. In that case, provide all speakers with a form they can sign indicating they agree to the terms and conditions of the conference presentation.

7. Advertise

Next up is to advertise your conference. In addition to traditional advertising methods like print, tv, or radio, capitalize on your social media presence. With a website already established, you have a great opportunity to share your event’s URL and drive traffic to your website. Make it easy on your guests by offering online registration and credit card payment. Also, consider adding a blog to your website which will keep attendees or potential attendees apprised of speaker bookings or important updates. Another great advertising tactic is to leverage your sponsors’ networks, reaching out to their employees or business connections.

Gaining ground (2-4 months before)

8. Establish registration process

The ideal time to establish your registration process is about 3-4 months before your conference. Mentally step through the conference day as your attendees would, from arrival at the venue, through the conference program, through any meals, to departure from the venue. Think about what items your registration team will need to provide to conference attendees and what important information needs to be conveyed. The goal is to provide a smooth check-in experience while providing as much information as necessary.

9. Offer grants / scholarships

The next tip to consider when planning your conference is offering travel grants or conference scholarships. Often, conferences can be cost-prohibitive to some of your ideal attendees; if you’re able to offer discounted or free tickets through sponsorships or other funding, this is a great way to get attendees to your conference. Some organizers request a short piece of writing so that they know how the attendee will utilize the information they receive at the conference in their professional life. Consider using your website as a clearinghouse for sponsorship requests.

10. Finalize program

About two months prior to your conference, you should finalize your program. Take into consideration any speaker travel, if you have presenters traveling for your conference, as well as your presenters’ topics, when setting up your program. If a speaker is traveling in the morning of your conference, consider scheduling their presentation for the afternoon. It’s also a great idea to vary discussions as much as possible to keep your guests engaged. With such engaging discussions, consider building in some down time for your guests. That will give your attendees time to digest the information they’ve heard before going into another presentation.

Almost there (0-2 months before)

11. Confirmation emails

This next task should occur between the 2 weeks to 2 days prior to your conference: sending confirmation emails. Confirmation emails are typically the most effective, especially for a conference with a large number of attendees, but you can also make calls to confirm your guests’ attendance and remind them of important details. The key items to include in your confirmation are date & time, venue details, logistical information, and agenda. Hosting a conference costs both time and money; don’t let your planning go to waste because your guests get busy and forget.

12. Print handouts & assemble “swag bags”

Your next step is to print any handouts and assemble “swag bags.” Traditionally, “swag bags” are a popular way to ensure that your attendees receive important documents, like the day’s program, nametags or meal tickets, and provide promotional items from sponsors. If you’re choosing a more eco-friendly approach to your conference, consider making all information available online before and after the conference.

13. Rehearse AV

The next tip is to rehearse the audiovisual (AV) components of your event. Conferences traditionally have heavy audio and visual requirements, with most presenters utilizing a PowerPoint or other media to illustrate their presentation. It’s important to communicate with the AV team at your venue to ensure they have the appropriate resources for your presenters and are able to manage multiple computer presentations. It’s also wise to test any audio prior to your presenters beginning their presentations, whether that is a few hours or just minutes prior to their presentation.

Post event (0-1 months after)

14. Send post-event communication

The second to last tip is to send post-event communication. Post photos of the conference on your website or social media. Attendees will look through photo albums to find themselves and share with their social network. Include a thank you to sponsors or other contributors in your communication plan to reinforce a continued partnership and lay the groundwork for future contributions. Send a survey to attendees to learn what elements of the conference were most effective, and what can be improved upon for future events.

15. Create post-event report

After your conference is over and you’ve communicated with your attendees, presenters, vendors, and volunteers, the final tip for successful conference planning is to create a post-event report. Often, a post-event evaluation gets overlooked because planners move on to the next event almost right away. However, only through assessing your event will you know a) if the event met expectations, b) if the event stayed within budget, and c) if you should host another conference in the future. Utilize attendee surveys, feedback from staff and volunteers, and assemble all expenses so you have all of your data in one cohesive report. With this information, you will have a clear picture of the success of your conference.


In Closing

With our 15 tips and our all-in-one event website and online registration platform, you are ready to plan a successful conference! EventCreate makes it easy to create a beautiful, professional-looking event web page in minutes using our easy-to-use website builder. Get started by choosing one of our event website themes, each handcrafted by our award-winning design team. No coding skills are required and no server setup is needed. EventCreate gives you the power to fully customize your event reply process. Sell tickets, accept credit cards, and customize your reply form with unlimited custom questions. Invite attendees to your event with beautifully simple and personalized email invitations. EventCreate's invite system comes pre-built with a host of features including delivery tracking, bulk list upload, and scheduled reminders.

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